Joyce Cary – Herself Surprised, 1941


‘He promised me my picture in six months and it’s not finished after four years.’ It was always her picture. She would say to visitors: ‘Yes, my picture is going on very well. It is going to be finished by next month. A wonderful conception, don’t you think, the Garden of Eden?’

Of course, all the people in the place were disgusted at the picture. Ugly was too good a word for it. It was an outrage, an insult to decent folk, a bolshevist plot. Why they thought it bolshevist, I could never find out, because it was only naked men and women in a kind of garden with queer flowers and trees, and some of them speaking words out of their mouths, written on coloured puffs. None of the words were to do with bolshevism, which Gulley hated like poison because, he said, the bolshevists tried to make artists paint for  the government.

One of the women, with very short legs, was saying in pink letters on a blue puff: ‘Love is my name, on death I stand.’ A tree with white flowers was singing out of one of the flowers: ‘I sleep in this joy, do not wake me with admiration.’ A goat was saying in white letters on a green puff: ‘Chain me or I shall eat the world bare.’ An old man with no ears or arms or legs was saying: ‘You do not speak my language – I can’t hear your voice.’ A big strong black man with his legs like tree roots was saying in black letters on a big white puff: ‘I am death, from life I grow. Maids, take my seed, and bear.’

No one liked the picture, not even Miss Slaughter, who was shocked by the puffs. She was terribly upset when she saw Gulley painting them on, in the very last month. I heard her catch her breath. But as I say, she was tough, and she always stuck to her principles, which were that Gulley was a genius and that a genius is always right. So she even praised them to him. But all he said was: ‘I think they look silly.’

So I thought too, and I hoped he would change them. But he never did. For one day he came in and told me that the picture was done; he never wanted to see it again. He agreed only to stay for the opening day, which was to be after harvest Sunday.

Miss Slaughter couldn’t wait even so long as a month. She turned us out as soon as the picture was finished. Not that she was rude. She said that her niece was coming. But no niece came and it was only to get rid of us. I don’t blame her after five years. But as it turned out we had no money, at least till Gulley finished a portrait down in Queensport; so we had to take the cheapest room, over the blacksmith’s.

It was small, but that was no drawback when Gulley was happy. So he was, glad as always to be finished with a picture; and full of a new one, for Mr Hickson’s drawing- room, twenty feet high and forty feet long. Mr Hickson had not ordered it and we both knew he would never take it; but it kept us both happy in that week. For as I say, when Gulley was happy then we were both gay.

Joyce Cary. 1888- 1957

Herself Surprised, 1941

Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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